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Francisco Javier Pérez Latre,, Professor of the School of Communication. University of Navarra

Francis and the media, eight months later

Pope Francis demonstrates a special capacity for gestures and symbols

Mon, 25 Nov 2013 10:51:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The end of Pope Francis' first year is drawing near. It is a short time, but we already have data to draw some conclusions. On March 13, the cardinals elected Pope Francis in a climate of maximum expectation, which continued in the following days, while audiences and media got to know his unexpected and surprising figure. With 150,000 people in St. Peter's place and more than 5,000 accredited journalists, 11 million viewers watched the "white smoke" on television, a figure only reached by a few major events (especially sporting events). That day there were more than 7 million tweets about the Pope. These are data that placed the election of the Pope among the unique events for its diffusion. Francis began his audiences with a meeting with the journalists who covered the Conclave (March 16).

Publishers and bookstores soon realized that any book about Francis could be a best-seller. On the market publishing house the titles multiplied, frequently topping the best-seller lists. In the books and interviews that are published, Francis offers ideas to know his thought and to understand the challenges of today's world with such suggestive expressions as "to walk through patience" or "culture of meeting".

Several milestones stand out in Francis' relationship with the media in 2013. The trip to the island of Lampedusa (July 8) was one of them. After learning of the death of another group of immigrants who wanted to arrive from Africa, the Pope personally went to the island and raised his voice: "I felt that I had to come here today to pray, to make a gesture of closeness, but also so that what happened would not be repeated". In Lampedusa, Francis called the world's attention to the "globalization of indifference": are we disoriented, are we no longer attentive to the world in which we live, do we not care, do we not protect what God has created for everyone and are we not even capable of caring for one another?" The speech had a profound echo in world public opinion.

The trip to Brazil offered three highlights that were widely publicized: his meeting with young Argentines (July 25), the interview on the "Fantástico" program of the Globo television network (July 28) and the surprise meeting with journalists on the return plane (July 29). In the unusual press conference of the flight he was asked up to 23 questions, something few world leaders are willing to attempt. The frank and open style of the answers is exponent of the style of a Pope who thinks that "to make an armored space between the bishop and the people is madness".

The Pope's voice resonated also in the days preceding what was seen as an imminent military intervention in Syria. Francis' repeated calls for peace and the letter he wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of the G20 meeting (September 4) contributed to the easing of tension. Quoting Paul VI, Francis addressed the world in those days with unequivocal words: "We want a world of peace, we want to be men and women of peace, we want peace to break out in our society, torn by divisions and conflicts; never again war!"

Francis is a phenomenon of public opinion. A few weeks ago, José Juan Toharia wrote in one of the blogs of El País about his popularity: in France, 82% of the population considers his election to be right, and 79% of Catholics expect major reforms from him; in the United States he deserves the approval of 79% of Catholics; in Italy, he inspires confidence in 83% of the population (95% among those who define themselves as Catholics). In Russia, his first six months have earned him 71% of public support. In October, Forbes magazine included Francis among the 5 most "powerful" leaders in the world.

These milestones can explain the fascination of the media and the public, but only in part. Pope Francis demonstrates a special capacity for gestures and symbols, for going out to the meeting of people and comforting the weak and the sick. He not only says things but does them. Perhaps the interest of his figure has to do with the Pope's character of reference letter in a world of weak and unstable bonds, where everything changes. Difficult to pigeonhole in conventional media categories, Francis is traditional, but not conservative. He also has that smile that by now has gone around the world and widens hearts", as a recent interviewer said. In a world in need of leaders, many of us sense that we have found in Francis a true leader. One of those leaders we need.